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What Google Has in Store for Android 4.4

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As we near the official announcement, leaks and screenshots reveal what we can expect in Android 4.4.

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The rumored release dates came and went, but judging from a flurry of leaks and pre-release app updates, the wait for Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) official announcement to Android 4.4 may soon be over. But while Oct. 31 does seem like the most natural date to announce an OS named after a staple Halloween candy it's still up in the air whether Google will finally lift the veil on KitKat for its legion of Android fans. However, with recent leaks and screenshots purportedly taken of the new mobile OS, we already have a pretty good idea of what to expect in the upcoming release.

Google Experience Launcher

As we've started to see in the months leading up to the new OS, Google has begun to "take back Android" from the clutches of meddling manufacturers. Google apps like Gmail and the Google keyboard have been lifted from OS updates and plunked onto the Google Play Store, allowing them to be both downloaded and updated separately from the big OS updates. But with OS skins like Samsung's (OTCMKTS:SSNLF) TouchWiz and HTC's (OTCMKTS:HTCXF) Sense slapped on top of the stock operating system, Android devices from different manufacturers still have a distinctly different look and feel from one another. And all that tinkering not only irritates users who prefer the "Pure Google Experience," it leads to heavy delays for software updates that could have otherwise been immediate if the device was running an un-skinned version of Android.

Well, that all might change with the release of the Google Experience Launcher. What it aims to do, presumably, is unify all the stock and skinned Android devices into a single UI that mimics (or essentially is) stock Android. Not only that, but analysts believe the Google Experience Launcher won't necessarily need 4.4 to run and could be compatible with versions all the way back to 2.2 Froyo, granting Android users with ancient phones the ability to run a current UI. While most of the details remain speculatory, they do fall in line with the company's recent "reacquisition" of Google apps.

Low-End Device and Wearable Support

Speaking of ancient phones, you know fragmentation is bad when devices released just last year may not see an OS update. For Android users, many have seen support disappear even before the contracts with their carriers expire. Of course, the lion's share of the blame lies with the skin-happy manufacturers and the bloatware-touting carriers -- all of whom hope users tire of waiting for an update and simply upgrade their phones. But some of this is due to how older devices simply don't have the muscle to run newer OS platforms.

However, recent rumors have claimed Android 4.4 will support low-end devices and be able to run smoothly despite outdated processor speeds and limited RAM. Also, it could point to compatibility with wearable devices like, say, a watch or a Google Glass.

Open NFC and Better Bluetooth

As Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) waits to forge headlong into Bluetooth low energy (see: The Biggest iPhone 5S Feature Nobody's Talking About), Google appears to be sticking with near-field communication (NFC) as a possible entry into the future of commerce. But Google Wallet, which used to rely on NFC to work, continues to languish due to a lack of support among retailers, not to mention carriers like Verizon (NYSE:VZ), AT&T (NYSE:T), and T-Mobile (NYSE:TMUS) outright banning it from their phones in favor of an even less-supported NFC payment system called ISIS.

But once again, Android 4.4 is suspected to eschew the heavy hand of carriers. The newer, more open NFC will be able to operate without a secure element like a Google Wallet app. Rather, developers will be able to emulate credit card functionality without needing the secure element to store data. It's still a bit unclear where the information will be stored, but anything that takes power away from carriers is welcome to end users.

Also, Bluetooth support will see an upgrade in Bluetooth HID over GATT and Bluetooth Message Access Profile. This will allow for compatibility and better connectivity with a greater number of devices like joysticks, in-car entertainment systems, and possibly some as-yet-unseen wearable technology.

More Sensors and Native IR Blaster Support

It's pretty incredible that our phones can already act as pedometers and tell which direction is north. But Android 4.4 is tossing in even more sensors to detect how your device moves and is being held. Three new sensor types -- geomagnetic rotation vector, step detector, and step counter sensors -- will have native support in the updated OS. This likely points to the release of more smartwatches that monitor your stride and direction during your morning jogs.

On the other side of the metabolism coin, couch potatoes aren't left out in the new release. Native IR blaster support is coming, giving developers the ability to build more apps that use a phone's IR blaster to control TVs and entertainment systems. This will make phones with built-in IR blasters like Samsung Galaxy S4 and the HTC One the ultimate universal remote controls.

...And the Rest

Although Android 4.4 isn't a full version upgrade, it isn't without its share of changes and enhancements. Transparent navigation bar, white system icons, and altered icons are among some of the different aesthetic changes 4.4 will bring. Plus, better integration with Hangouts and Google Voice will soon mean VoIP will finally be possible (take that, carriers!), and location settings are getting overhauled to be faster and use less battery power.

And then there's the Nexus 5, Google's highly anticipated device in the Nexus line with LTE support over multiple carriers. Specs have already been leaked and the new device is said to rival flagship phones like the iPhone 5S and Samsung Galaxy S4. As excited as fans are for KitKat, the buzz has never been more frenzied for a Nexus release.
All that's left is to count the hours until Google officially announces its latest OS and phone.

See also:

Apple: Tim Cook Is Dreaming of an iPad Christmas

Apple Will Replace Your Lousy iPhone 5S Battery

Google News: New Glass, Mystery Barges, and a Smartwatch
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